The “Jewish mother” defense

Photo of Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg, television's best known Jewish mother, from the program "The Goldbergs." By The Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg, television’s best known Jewish mother, from the program “The Goldbergs.” By The Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Another day, another public figure making a clumsy attempt to advise women about what they should or should not be doing. I’m all for provocative critiques and debate-spurring commentary, but sometimes I get a little weary.

Last week’s entry to the ring was Princeton alum Susan Patton, with her advice to Princetonian women that they should be looking for a husband during their college years because “you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”

I’m actually not that interested in what Patton said or in the obvious rejoinders. What caught my attention was her defense: “I just thought this was some good advice from a Jewish mother.”

And so the Jewish mother rears her overbearing head again. Talk about weary. It seems that whenever anyone has given unwanted, unnecessary, over-generalized advice based on her own limited experience, there stands the Jewish mother, hands on broad hips, offering cover.

On the most basic level, I just wish “Jewish mother” could come to mean something different and more positive. How refreshing it would be if a sensitive, insightful reflection were followed up with “Just offering some good Jewish mother advice.”  Why does “Jewish mother” need to be shorthand for unsolicited, inept, outdated commentary? Why, for that matter, should she be trotted out only to support the most conventional, conservative, and conformist positions? If we look at history, there are plenty of Jewish mothers waving revolutionary flags. Why not adopt that model as the characteristic “Jewish mother” stance?

Which leads me to the question at the heart of my latest project, an anthology on the role of the Jewish mother stereotype in contemporary Jewish mothering (stay tuned for more on that): Is it possible – or even desirable – to redefine the “Jewish mother”? What aspects of this mostly unappealing figure might we reclaim? After all, some of us – especially feminists – have embraced other typically Jewish characteristics that were once (and still are, in some communities and contexts) negatively valued. I’m not ashamed to be fervently opinionated, verbal, and sometimes argumentative. I believe Jewish women have gotten where we are today by strategically deploying those characteristics.

So what do you think? Do we leave the Jewish mother behind in her housedress, or do we go for a makeover? Is she a diamond in the rough or a tasteless bauble best left in your Bubbe’s jewelry box?

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This entry was posted in Feminism, Jewish mothers, marriage. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The “Jewish mother” defense

  1. Jaymie says:

    Interesting question Judith, but something else is bothering me: why is it that nobody seems to be giving advice to men? Why are we constantly being told that we have screwed up — either by not leaning in enough, or by leaning in too far and not marrying a guy from college, or by being the wrong kind of Mom (tiger, French) — I could go on…. But men are perfect? When will our choices be celebrated instead of criticized? Sorry for the rant but I had to get it out there…

  2. Jaymie, I agree completely. All the responsibility seems to fall on women, and we’re not even the ones with the real social power! So we keep being asked to change ourselves and our behavior, while the social structures are left intact. Until men see themselves as partners in feminism, equality will be incomplete.

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